Documented pregnancy-related deaths have doubled in the United States since 1990, health experts say. And the rates among African American women are triple that of white women.

In Pennsylvania, the rate rose from 9.7 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2005, to 14.5 in 2010.
And almost 50 other countries have lower maternal mortality rates than the U.S.

Responding to those statistics, New Jersey-based drugmaker Merck & Co. is expanding a maternity care initiative that previously has focused on the developing world to the U.S. Philadelphia's Maternity Care Coalition and Camden's Coalition of HealthCare Providers will get a share of $6 million dollars in grants from the Merck and Mom program.

"One woman every 10 minutes suffers from life-threatening complications she nearly dies from," said Dr. Priya Agrawal, executive director of Merck for Mothers.

"We need to make sure the right care gets to every woman, regardless of where she is born or where she decides to deliver, her ZIP code, income status or her racial or educational background," she said.

Women are arriving to pregnancy with their health already compromised, said JoAnne Fischer, executive director of the Maternity Care Coalition.

They may have "chronic conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, obesity," she said. "Women who may have been born with chronic heart conditions are now having babies," she said.

Another reason for the increasing rate of mortality is that complicated pregnancies are more likely to result in a cesarean section, Fischer said.

"If you have a C-section, it is more likely you are at risk for maternal complications and death," she said.

With $150,000 for an initial year of funding, the Maternity Care Coalition will invest in its "Safe Start MOMobile" program, which brings services directly to the homes of those in need.